Predicting an upset in the NFL is no easy task, no matter what anybody tells you. Favorites in Vegas are favorites for a reason; they are usually the better team.
So what do you look for in predicting an upset? For starters, you look for favorable matchups. Perhaps you have an underdog that runs the football effectively going against a team with a depleted defensive line.
Or you could look for an underdog with a top-notch receiver going against a cornerback limited by injury. Favorites in the NFL still have weaknesses, because no team is perfect even if their record is unblemished.
Another approach is to look at a team's recent opponents. For example, I'd be very hesitant to bank on a 2-1 San Francisco team against Philadelphia that has wins over Seattle and Cincinnati, but lost to Dallas.
Conversely, while the Miami Dolphins have been anything but good in going 0-3, they deserve some consideration as a possible upset pick after playing New England, Houston and Cleveland (all teams with winning records) to start the season.
Perhaps my favorite approach is to look at favorites where something just doesn't jive. All the credit in the world should go to Buffalo for going 3-0 to open the season, but can it really last? The defense is a hodge-podge of castoffs and marginal talent. Will they just outscore teams all season? Maybe, but I have to see it to believe it.
There are so many other methods for predicting upsets, such as momentum, getting a team coming of a big win or looking ahead, etc., that you could drive yourself nuts over-analyzing a game and I'll try my best to do that here.
In reality, the best approach might just be to go with your gut. Yes, you could crunch the numbers of how a team has done at home or on the road the last five times they played a specific opponent, and Vegas somehow makes sense of trends like that, but for most, that brings on "paralysis by analysis".
So without further ado, here are five NFL teams that should at least be on upset alert this weekend.
Mind you, I think that the Miami Dolphins (0-3) defeating the San Diego Chargers (2-1), who are favored by about eight points, is the least likely of five potential upsets. Still, there are some facts that are hard to ignore.
First, the Chargers are injury-riddled. They have four healthy defensive lineman at last check. Quentin Jammer, Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Running back Ryan Matthews was limited with a foot injury on Wednesday and did not practice Thursday.
Gates seems doubtful to play, which could be a big bonus for the Dolphins, since they haven't covered skilled tightends well in years.
San Diego also has a tendency to start slow and keep teams in games. Just last Sunday, they faced a far inferior Kansas City Chiefs team and escaped with a 20-17 victory.
Miami has been a much better road team than home squad the last few years and really should have beaten Cleveland a week ago. Rookie running back Daniel Thomas would seem to be primed to wear down that thin Chargers' defensive line.
So why won't it happen? Well, Philip Rivers is still Philip Rivers. If he looks out on Sunday and sees Nolan Carroll starting at cornerback for the Dolphins, pardon him for the ridiculously goofy grin he will have on his face.
Miami's secondary has been atrocious through the first three weeks, and Carroll has been the primary culprit getting beat. Regular starter Vontae Davis is still struggling to recover from a hamstring injury, which means Carroll would get the nod.
As the home team, the Dallas Cowboys (2-1) are a one to 1.5 point favorite over the Detroit Lions (3-0).
This is actually a late addition to my list of possible upsets, but one that should only be considered an upset, if the small spread is taken as an indication that there is a clear favorite and underdog in this game.
In short, this is a bad match-up for the Cowboys. Specifically, this is a bad match-up for Tony Romo and his cracked ribs in the form of Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit defense.
If Cowboys center Phil Costa, in just his second year in the league, has trouble either snapping the ball or with a defense reportedly simulating cadence on shotgun snaps, then how is he going to handle the physically dominant Suh?
Don't sleep on Kyle Vanden Bosch (three sacks) or Cliff Avril getting to Romo either.
On the flip side, who on the Dallas defense is going to shut down Detroit's multiple offensive weapons: Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best, and rookie Titus Young?
All five players have 140 receiving yards or more so far this season, and Johnson has been virtually unstoppable with 16 catches for 225 yards and six touchdowns.
I see this game as a coming out party for the Lions on a national stage in front of "America's team".
When I looked at the line for this game, I saw that Washington was only favored by a point or a point and a half over St. Louis, I thought that it must be a misprint.
Not that I believe that the Redskins (2-1) are an elite team, but the Rams (0-3) are just awful.
So, here is why the Redskins are susceptible to being upset, if one would even call it that given the close line.
The Rams losses have been to Philadelphia, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens. With the exception of Baltimore, they were relatively competitive, especially in the Philadelphia game.
On the flip side, Washington beat New York convincingly in Week 1, they then squeaked by a pedestrian Arizona team and lost to a Cowboys team that didn't even reach the endzone.
There are also signs that Washington is beginning to show the cracks that have maligned this franchise in recent years.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall called out the coaching staff for an all-out blitz on 3rd-and-21 that resulted in the Cowboy's Dez Bryant pulling in a 30-yard catch that resulted in a game-winning field goal.
After an outstanding Week 1 in which he posted a quarterback rating of 110.5, Rex Grossman has come back down to earth, with ratings in the 70's and three interceptions in the last two games.
The Rams' star running back Steven Jackson is getting healthier from a quadriceps injury that caused him to miss a game and limited his carries last week.
Finally, coach Steve Spagnuolo got his first home win against the Redskins last season, and St. Louis has won three of their last four games against Washington.
The Bills are coming off a thrilling landmark win over the New England Patriots. Turn on the television or radio for sports, and you will hear about the remarkable resurgence of the Buffalo Bills (3-0).
Now, they face the Cincinnati Bengals (1-2). Can you say let down? Oddsmakers apparently can say that word, as they have installed Buffalo as just a three point favorite.
There are a couple of other factors that make Buffalo a logical upset victim. The Bills destroyed a poor Kansas City team but need monumental comebacks to beat both the Pats and the Oakland Raiders. There are only so many times that formula can work for an NFL team.
Cincinnati is better than Buffalo in virtually every defensive statistic category. The Bengals have allowed significantly less running yards, less passing yards and less points than the Bills.
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sacked just two times so far despite an arguably average offensive line. The Bengals have nine sacks and apply much better pressure than the Bills' previous opponents. Something has to give.
OK, I am going on the gut instinct I referred to earlier, but there are some very valid reasons to believe the New York Jets (2-1) will beat the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) on Sunday Night Football.
If you look closely, teams rarely put back-to-back elite performances together. After the Ravens completely dismantled the Steelers 35-7 in Week 1, they came back and laid an egg against the Tennessee Titans in losing 26-13.
In Week 3, Baltimore came out like gangbusters again and embarrassed the St.Louis Rams 37-7. Now, they face a talented, but inconsistent, Jets team.
While, I think this game will be close, the Jets also have the advantage of having their head coach Rex Ryan very familiar with what Baltimore does as the Ravens' former defensive coordinator.
This game carries special meaning for Ryan even if he has already returned to his former stomping grounds. "Was I bitter about not getting the head coaching job?," Ryan said. "Yes, absolutely, but when it was determined that John Harbaugh was going to be the head coach, I wanted to be the best coach that he's ever had under him and be the best coach I can be, and not worry about the job that I didn't have. That's how I approached the job.”
Point being, is that Ryan will have his squad fired up and ready to go.
Furthermore, very few teams have success running the ball on Baltimore, especially with Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and company manning the interior. So, the Jets' lack of running game is somewhat immaterial.
New York may not score a ton of points in this one, but for all the questions about New York's offense, they rank ninth in the NFL with an average of 27.7 points per game.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez is averaging just under 300 yards passing per game, including a pasting of Jacksonville where he didn't have to throw as many passes as normal.
The health of center Nick Mangold and, maybe even more importantly, cornerback Antonio Cromartie might be a big factor in the outcome of this game.
With New York's Darrelle Revis likely to match up against Baltimore's leading receiver Anquan Boldin (14 catches for 194 yards and a touchdowns), the Jets need Cromartie to handle emerging rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, who caught five passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns in his very first start last week.
The guess here is that the Jets do just enough to emerge as road winners against the Ravens.